Game over for poaching as youth opt to hunt the ball

Creative approach by conservancies is helping youth shun bushmeat

In Summary

• Efforts by KWS to tame poaching have long been hindered by poverty and drought

• Football tournament was mooted as a way to engage the youth, often the culprits

Football team comprising young men from Taita Taveta in a programme aiming to keep youth away from poaching.

Football team comprising young men from Taita Taveta in a programme aiming to keep youth away from poaching
Football team comprising young men from Taita Taveta in a programme aiming to keep youth away from poaching

Kisiagu Road leading to Mgeno conservancy in Taita Taveta county is dusty, but the green vegetation shining by the roadside gives one a thrilling expectation of what lies ahead.

It began as a ranch rearing livestock before it transformed into a conservancy that incorporated other land use practices, such as wildlife conservation, tourism, mining and agriculture.

It is this transformation that gave hope to thousands of wild animals living in the nearby iconic ecosystem.

When Mgeno was transitioning to a conservancy, poaching was the order of the day for many residents.

With poverty, biting drought and insufficient food production, many families in this ecosystem could hardly afford to buy meat.

This forced many of them to opt for poaching for survival.

It is this devastating reality that pushed Mgeno to do something to save wildlife.

Mgeno Conservancy CEO Peter Ndong'a says while poaching is an illegal activity, it was hard to stop desperate families from resorting to it.

Under the circumstances, they needed a strategy that would endear them to the nearby community to resolve the thorny issue.

And thus, the idea of a football tournament was born.

"We have a football team comprising youths who were involved in hunting animals and cutting trees," Ndong'a says.

It is during this noble sporting activity that key intelligence on poaching is gathered. It also serves as a perfect opportunity to educate society on the need to stop poaching.

Ndong'a says the platform enables them to pass information so they are aware of the importance of the animals and their heritage to Kenya.

Mgeno Conservancy CEO Peter Ndong'a
Mgeno Conservancy CEO Peter Ndong'a


Tsavo National Park is well known as the theatre of the wild as it forms a preservation area covering about 42,000sq km, known as the Tsavo ecosystem. 

This ecosystem is home to elephants, lions, rhinos, buffaloes and cheetahs.

"When we began community outreach, we were trying to get avenues of curbing these vices. Most of those being arrested are the youth," Ndong'a says.

"For those in schools, we have a conservation education team, but we realised the youth like football. We started with a friendly match with Kenya National Youth Service, which is a field station next to our boundary."

Ndong'a says when they had this engagement, they scaled it higher to clubs within the villages.

They moved from Mwatate to Kasigao, where he says there is a lot of poaching going on.

Most hunted bushmeat in Kenya.
Most hunted bushmeat in Kenya.

In 2021, statistics from the KWS placed Taita Taveta as a poaching hotspot.

Other identified bushmeat hotspots in the country include Kajiado, Nakuru, Narok, Lamu and Tana River counties. Currently, about 143 bushmeat cases are pending in court.

"Poaching mostly happens among the youth because they operate motorcycles and they are called to carry bushmeat once the hunting is done," Ndong'a says.

"So when we meet together, we do so as people who are going to enjoy a match together, then after the game, we talk about how the game was."

When the game is finished, they introduce themselves as rangers. 

"Through these games, we have gotten intelligence information that has allowed us to secure our border. When rangers get this information, we go for night ambushes," he says.

Ndong'a says this has tamed poaching because now the youth have become friendlier. The games are played every weekend in different locations.

When you meet the person you played with, you become closer and it's now easier for them to give you information of any planned activities at night
Peter Ndong'a 

"When you meet the person you played with, you become closer and it's now easier for them to give you information about any planned activities at night," he says.

"We have given some of them employment within the conservancy. Others, we engage them in a way that they become our informers because we do not stay in the villages. We treat them as anonymous but we know them. When you are an informer, they operate in a secret way."

Ndong'a says the community outreach programme started on May 2021. By the end of that year, rangers had recorded 15 arrests of bushmeat poachers.

In 2022, rangers recorded nine arrests of bushmeat poachers.

"Out of these, records have indicated good progress. It has also helped in changing community perception towards wildlife," he says.

"It has improved the flow of information concerning wildlife from community to the conservancy and vice versa."

 The cooperation has also helped the local community in tracking their lost livestock, Ndong'a added.

Reformed poacher Abraham Arafat during the interview
Reformed poacher Abraham Arafat during the interview


I meet a reformed poacher who works for Mgeno conservancy.

Imagine being a child and having the upper hand in watching one of nature's most remarkable live-action shows day in, day out at the Tsavo West National Park.

That was the reality of reformed poacher Abraham Wario, who grew up along the border of the largest protected region in Kenya. 

At four years, Abraham had known that the meat that was 'tasty and delicious' was only coming from wild animals. They used to feed on bushmeat and honey without ugali.

"Elders would hunt for the fattest wildlife and would mostly go for elephants and zebras," he says. 

"I used to hear and see them come with bushmeat. They would then introduce me slowly into the hunt and tell me how important it was to have the meat at home." 

Abraham, who now works as a ranger at Mgeno conservancy, says they showed him how to hunt.

"They took me to their hunting sprees and showed me how to hold a bow and arrow, saying it was a sure bet in putting an animal down without thinking much about it. You were being taught how to ensure that you hit the target not while it was running but while standing," he says. 

Abraham says he was taught about this when he was in Class 4.

"I had to drop off school because I wanted to become a hunter of bushmeat. I found it intriguing. So our hunting not only took place at Mgeno conservancy, but we used to trek to many places just to hunt," he says. 

Elephants drink water on February 26
Elephants drink water on February 26


In all this, Abraham says there were some challenges.

"We went hunting at night because daytime, Kenya Wildlife Service rangers patrolled the area, but there were other bandits who were using guns. They were dangerous because it was easier for them to shoot and kill instantly," he says. 

Abraham says one night, they went hunting as usual but one of his friends died. 

"We had gone hunting and we were carrying our bushmeat. We realised that one of our friends was missing. It seemed like he had taken another route but then as we went back home, we saw bandits' boot trails," he says. 

He says they had an instinct that their friend had been captured by the bandits.

"We went back home with our meat but our friend was nowhere to be found. Days later, some villagers said they saw his body in the park, hanging on a tree," he says. 

Abraham's father and elders discouraged them from going to the park for one week, saying that it would dangerous. But they also told them not to stop hunting. 

"After three days we went back to the bush. We were three people. But KWS hunted us down and one old man was arrested since he was unable to run faster," he says. 

But the elders went to another community and got another old man who came and taught the youth how to poach. 

Buffaloes take water at Taita Hills in Taita Taveta on February 26
Buffaloes take water at Taita Hills in Taita Taveta on February 26

According to Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013, any person who keeps or is found with a wildlife trophy, deals in a wildlife trophy or manufactures any item from a trophy without a permit faces a fine or prison.

As days went by, Abraham, who by then was seven years in the business, killed a lion. 

"This was a defining moment because my name even changed from Abraham to Arafat. Arafat means the brave one. But then I decided to stop hunting and went back to school," he says. 

Abraham went back to school and finished his secondary school.

When he returned to the community, he wanted to be a key champion in sensitising the community on matters of wildlife. 

"I came back and applied for a job as a ranger because I felt indebted to the community after feeding on bushmeat and honey my entire life. I wanted a change in how I was doing things," he says. 

Abraham applied for the job and got in. He now has three years as a ranger at Mgeno conservancy. 


David Guyo, the assistant head ranger at Wushumbu Conservancy, says during the night ambush, they immobilise the enemy the same way the enemy immobilises wild animals. 

"We come with our thunder spotlights and use many, not only one. We use it on the poacher even if they are on a motorbike, they will just fall down," he says.

He says poachers also use different tactics to get bushmeat. 

"But we are also liaising with the Kenya Wildlife Services, so they also come in with their guns," he says. 

Wushumbu CEO Valentines Mkanyika during the interview
Wushumbu CEO Valentines Mkanyika during the interview

Wushumbu conservancy CEO Valentines Mkanyika says they rely on thunder torches for night raids. 

"But we leave the bush at around 10pm because it can get dangerous and we lack the necessary equipment," she says. 

Resources used for hunting by poachers include vehicles, motorbikes, quad-bikes, thermal-imaging tools and night-vision goggles and communication equipment, including radios, mobile phones and satellite phones. 

"So you find our rangers turning back very early because the terrains are dangerous," she says. 

Ndong'a concurs, saying sometimes, it undermines their ability to mount night ambushes after getting intelligence. 

"Yes, we want to eradicate poaching, but we lack enough equipment, so it makes our lives a bit complicated," he says. 

The road leading to the Mgeno Conservancy in Taita Taveta
The road leading to the Mgeno Conservancy in Taita Taveta


Mkanyika says within the community, they ensure that reformed poachers do not turn back. 

"We have sources of livelihood in this area that we have introduced. This is open for former poachers. Our main aim is to ensure that they have food and some money in their pockets," she says. 

Sitting in her office in Taita Taveta county, Mkanyika says the community is heavily involved in beekeeping. 

"Within this project, you find that we have reformed poachers who now enjoy the work because, at the end of it all, they will have some money in their pockets," she says.

She says most poachers are 18 to 35 years old. She says the elderly ones are 65 years and above. 

"We try to talk to the elders to be champions of wildlife. They have to start discouraging illegal wildlife trade among the youth. We have to do this as a community if we want to prosper," she says.

Traffic East Africa behaviour change manager Jane Shuma says it's essential for communities to engage in talks about stopping illegal wildlife trade.

"It’s essential to engage communities in talks on wildlife poaching, bushmeat and diseases as well as indulging them in best ways of sustainable survival in these hard climate-changing and unpredictable times," she says.

Shuma said sensitising communities on illegal wildlife trade and consumption, can lead to transforming their behaviours in matters of conservation. 

“It is very essential to engage communities in matters pertaining to wildlife protection, poaching, illegal consumption of wild meat and diseases associated with it,” she says.

She cites encouraging former poachers or reformed poachers to join forces to form a group that will speak against poaching and advocate wildlife protection.

“In this way, the groups can be supported by different actors for alternative livelihood programmes.”

To ensure they do not go astray, conservancies or wildlife management areas should keep them busy with roles, she says.

“They can involve reformed poachers in roles such as village scouts or conservancy rangers in helping to protect wildlife,” she says.

“Scrutiny and investigations need to be conducted before involving them to ensure they are completely no longer involved in illegal acts.”

Shuma encouraged reformed poachers not to go back to illegal activities since it is possible to make it in life without being engaged in illegal activities. 

“Engage yourselves in legal activities as they will save themselves from law enforcement suffering, get time to focus on the well-being of their family, move freely in the community without being suspected and just generally have that peace of mind,” she says.

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